Christoph Eschenbach is a familiar conductor to Hong Kong audiences, but in previous performances he didn’t exactly pull any rabbits out of any hats. I wasn’t expecting last night with the Hong Kong Philharmonic to be any different, although I did notice some subtle anomalies. It’s unusual to programme Brahms’ mammoth Piano Concerto no. 2 in B flat major as the opening work, which is like diving into the pool at the deep end with no warm-up. Nevertheless there are strong connections between this and Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony in the second half of the evening, not the least because Dvořák owed much of his success to Brahms’ support. I could also understand why the cellos were sitting right of centre rather than far right, given their importance to both works on the programme. The anomalies continued to build, as soloist Tzimon Barto strolled on stage. Dressed in what looked like a dark grey long-sleeved woollen T-shirt, he has the physique of a body-builder – I subsequently found out that he is one – and I hadn’t seen a soloist carry a score for a long time.

Tzimon Barto
Tzimon Barto

The horn opening was soft and gentle, and the solo piano entered, as expected, with no fanfare. Barto’s style of playing, with stretched fingers, lower wrists and a touch of nonchalance, reminded me of Horowitz. Eschenbach, probably because he is also a pianist, made a noticeable effort not to turn the concerto into a symphony with obbligato piano. The high strings in the first movement, however, sounded strident and gruelling. A good mixture of articulation and subtle nuances of intimacy in the solo part gave the orchestra a good run for its money.

In the “little wisp of a scherzo” (Brahms’ description), Barto was exceedingly eloquent in the repartee with the orchestra, especially the low strings. The most impressive collaboration between soloist and orchestra came in the Andante, the introspective soloist being engulfed as if in a reverie in the now mellower strings and richly lyrical orchestral colours. Principal cello Richard Bamping’s execution of the wistful opening and reprise was heavenly. Michael Wilson's oboe imbued the dialogue with more restless longing. The finale was light-hearted and cheerful, but not an exuberant romp. It wasn’t short of emphatic energy, though, and the variety of pacing made it a delightful meander. Applause from the audience was enthusiastic but not rapturous, probably the result of mild bewilderment.

A sorrowful introduction on low strings launched the first movement of Dvořák’s Symphony no. 8 in G major, but the chirpy flute soon broke the melancholy and stoked the strings into a vigorous swagger. Short-lived lyricism gave way to stormy whirls, but the sorrowful opening returned to restore calm, with the flute now soaring to greater heights to join thumping strings. A cantankerous fanfare on brass rudely interrupted the strings, but didn’t stop the two joining forces to bring the movement to an ecstatic close.

Despite being marked Adagio, the second movement progressed rather briskly, with the flute and clarinet in soft dialogue over reticent strings skipping a light dance. I couldn’t help thinking this could easily be mistaken for something by Tchaikovsky. The third movement was a wallowing waltz of sorts, with the strings taking centre stage and the woodwinds throwing in occasional comments on the side. I was so engrossed in their gyrations that, despite the earnest trumpet calls, I nearly missed the transition into the finale, which appeared to happen without a break. Lethargic low strings paved the way for more ardent statements by the rest of the orchestra, interspersed with mumbling on woodwinds. The emphatic rhythm grew more clamorous, as brass and strings coalesced into a brash chorus. The quiet introspection on flute provided but temporary relief to the sinewy strings, which overplayed their hands into overbearing chutzpah towards the close.

What started as an evening of anomalies ended in a mood of cheerful and triumphant celebration, with the audience now in rapturous response accordingly, satisfied that normality had returned.